The healthcare industry is still in recovery two years after the start of the pandemic. In a Twitter poll of almost 750 industry leaders, nearly 38 percent say that staff shortages are the biggest issue currently facing the healthcare system.
According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, the percentage of nursing facilities reporting a staff shortage has grown from 21 percent in May 2020 to 28 percent in March 2022. Looking at nursing staff in particular, the percentage has increased from 15 percent to 24 percent in that same period. In response, several HealthTech influencers are weighing in on how staff shortages are affecting the industry and what the long term impacts could be.
Understanding How the Healthcare Workforce Has Shifted
Nurses aren’t leaving healthcare; they are just moving away from hospitals, says Beverly Malone, president and CEO of the National League for Nursing and former deputy assistant secretary for health for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under President Bill Clinton.
“Amazingly, nursing is still one of the most sought-after professions, and the numbers coming into the school of nursing have not decreased. In fact, they’ve increased,” Malone says.
But hospital nurses are reporting unsafe staffing ratios, feeling stretched beyond capacity and getting pressure to do more with fewer resources, says Dr. Nisha Mehta, founder of Physician Community, a Facebook group with more than 58,000 members, and Physician Side Gigs, a group for physicians with more than 89,000 members.
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“I worry about the long-term erosion of quality of care for our patients if we do not proactively address these shortages by focusing on efforts to retain physicians and other healthcare workers,” Mehta says. “Additionally, reimbursement cuts and rising inflation without corresponding increases in salaries further threaten the healthcare workforce.”
Malone says hospitals are losing many of their seasoned nurses to other specialty fields within healthcare and should be building more clinical and work-life balance support for nurses. Due to pandemic pressures and a lack of resources, many hospital nurses have found employment in community healthcare, pharmacies and other settings.
“It’s almost like another world opened up to nurses beyond the hospital,” Malone says. “It remains important. But the pandemic put us in a position where we felt we were not able to do the work that we love: saving lives.”
DISCOVER: Learn how technology can alleviate effects of the nursing shortage.
Focus on Staff Retention with Recognition and Engagement
Retaining research and nursing staff has been the biggest challenge, says Dr. Estelamari Rodriguez, associate director of community outreach and thoracic oncology at the University of Miami Health System’s Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center. Many staff have pursued remote positions after a tough two years, and onsite hospital work is becoming less desirable, she says.
“Others have referred to this period as ‘The Great Resignation,’ and it is not an exaggeration. Some of our research teams lost half of their staff during the COVID-19 pandemic and had to rehire and retrain staff. The process of finding new staff and onboarding can take several months and it can delay research progress,” Rodriguez says.
While the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center has hired additional staff, Rodriguez says retention efforts including employee recognition, professional development opportunities, and engagement activities are just as important.
“It’s important that we invest in a culture of teamwork and engagement with staff,” she says. “Some of the ways that we have been able to achieve this have been via team retreats, social activities, increased competitive salaries and incorporating research staff into clinical practices so they feel more engaged with the team and the patients we serve.”
The Pros and Cons of Increasing Salaries in Healthcare
A natural and needed response to the difficulties in healthcare staffing is to increase employee salaries, says Brittney Wilson, founder of The Nerdy Nurse, a blog that centers the nurse experience in the healthcare field.
“People are just now having the opportunity to take a breath and evaluate things. Nurses and other staff continue to leave for higher pay. Priorities continue to shift. The cost of living continues to increase while pay for full time staff doesn’t match it,” Wilson says. “Successful organizations are acting quickly to adjust salaries to market levels.”
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But Wilson says that healthcare organizations can often be slow to adjust salaries.
“Pay will increase, but that also means healthcare costs will likely increase with it. Hospitals will attempt to become leaner and do more with less,” says Wilson, who predicts that staffing will continue to suffer, at least in the short term. “Hospitals have been bleeding staff and have had to significantly increase compensation to even try to compete.”